Business 2 Business Ltd, a company solely owned by Media Today’s Saviour Balzan, was handed a 15-year lease for premises within the government-owned industrial estate in the Mosta Technopark, The Shift can reveal.
Balzan’s lease was also accompanied by a side letter from former Malta Industrial Parks CEO Karl Azzopardi, which provided Balzan with a 10-month window from January to October 2020 in which he paid just €1 per month.
“Notwithstanding the provisions of the lease agreements, the rent due from 31 January 2020 to October 2020 shall be of one euro (€1) excluding Value Added Tax per month, this first payment of one euro (€1) excluding Value Added Tax becoming payable on 31 January 2020,” the side letter reads.
The lease agreement, signed on 31 January 2020 with the possibility of extending it to 2055, means Balzan got his hands on a site for the bargain bin price of just €11,590 a year or €966 per month.
The factory floor of the site leased to Business 2 Business covers 621sqm, which together with additional office space amounts to 173sqm, bringing the total to 794sqm – three times the size of a tennis court.
In comparison, commercial real estate with that kind of footprint would typically cost anywhere between €3,000 per month for the smallest comparable offices to €10,000 per month for the larger spaces amounting to a total footprint of 800sqm.
This, coupled with the fact that Balzan has profited from his relationship with the government that includes prime time space for PBS programmes, means the government has essentially subsidised Balzan’s operations both through the generous lease agreement and through taxpayer money used to fund his programmes.
According to the lease agreement’s details, the ‘planning use’ for the building handed to Balzan refers to “the provision of audiovisual services and other multimedia facilities which will be made available”.
The allocation of land from government-owned industrial estates goes through two main authorities – Malta Enterprise processes applications filed through its website, while a board from INDIS Malta (known as Malta Industrial Parks), the agency managing the sites, decides on whether the application goes through or not.
Such industrial sites should, according to the Business Promotion Act, be awarded on the basis of specific criteria linked with production and/or manufacturing.
The Act sets out how “beneficiaries” of the Act must be involved in “the production, manufacture, assembly, processing, repair, preservation or maintenance of any goods, materials, commodities, equipment, plant or machinery”.
Other eligible beneficiaries include services “analogous” to the activities mentioned above, activities related to aquaculture or agriculture, exports, research and development programmes, and the production of films, advertising programmes, commercials, documentaries and related ancillary services.
The Act also includes a rather loose clause that allows for “the rendering of a qualifying support service as may be prescribed by the minister”, which in this case would be Economy Minister Silvio Schembri.
In whose interest?
The Shift has revealed how Balzan has received at least €1 million in revenue from government contracts and PBS programme fees from 2015 to 2020.
Besides the lucrative programme slots awarded to him by the public broadcaster, a privilege no other independent newsroom enjoys, Balzan also offers PR consultancy services to ministers and government authorities and agencies such as the Malta Gaming Authority and Infrastructure Malta.
Transport Minister Ian Borg, Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis and disgraced former education minister Justyne Caruana used Balzan’s services as a media consultant. Documents show he was advising ministers, such as Transport Minister Ian Borg, on controversial issues such as the Central Link project that faced strong public opposition.
Attempts by The Shift to get a complete picture of public funds given to Balzan, who claims to have “probably” set up the only independent media newsroom in the country, is being blocked through a coordinated effort by the government not to disclose the information.
— Saviour Balzan (@saviourbalzan) July 14, 2021
Thirty government agencies have appealed a decision by the Data Commissioner to grant the information. The Shift is battling all these appeals, supporting the Commissioner’s decision.
While the Data Commissioner had upheld the argument that requests for information on the use of public funds are valid, the government’s attempts to delay the provision of information raise questions about why it is seeking to protect its association with Balzan.
Seven international press freedom NGOs have also condemned the government’s decision to file multiple appeals, describing it as “highly concerning”. They note that Balzan’s relations with the government are of “wider importance to press freedom in Malta”.
On 17 February, IGM co-founder Mario Schiavone told The Shift that he had resigned from the journalists’ association due to, among other reasons, Balzan’s presence on a press experts’ committee set up by the government.
Schiavone said he “disagreed with the composition of the board” and that “a person who is fighting against journalists being given information because it concerns him directly should not be on such a board”.